And What I Can’t Figure Out

Is how the rest of the world can be going about its business so nonchalantly. Like BT, I’ve got the peculiar kind of obsession with what’s happening that, I suppose, only someone with such deep personal attachments to the area can have. Folks around me make all the appropriate sympathetic noises when I bring it up, but it’s clear that they’re a little baffled by my level of panic.

Again, more below the fold.

And while I’m sensible enough to be able to hear Jake’s point about the relative death tolls of Katrina and last December’s tsunami, and would never think to compare them in that sense, there are some key data points left out of his analysis, points that make me want to scream.

A metropolitan area of nearly a million people — all now homeless.

The economic center of a significant region of the country — destroyed, if not permanently, at least for the foreseeable future.

Much as I enjoy playing the comparative economies of misery game in other, less tragic contexts, I don’t want to fall into that here. This is clearly no tsunami, as the numbers indicate, and it’s wrong to draw such comparisons. But I do think it’s fair to compare the public reactions to these two events. It makes me insanely angry, and deeply sad, how little the rest of the country seems to comprehend the enormity of what’s happening along the Gulf Coast right now.


  1. Could the rest of the country be paralyzed by guilt? From way up in Canada what I can glean of the reports is that the whole infrastructure crumbled. It seems that private interests have trumped public interest. [Public infrastructure and private reserve for public use crumble not only because of natural causes but also because of a failure to invest]. I am willing to wager that to cover such a failure of cultivating the public good, the not so subtle poltics of blame are about to come to the fore. Only the those that could not escape are trapped and there is almost the tendril of a nasty narrative line emerging (you got yourself into the mess…) What is perhaps heart wrenching when one compares the situation to the December tsunami is that it is difficult to imagine an outpouring of sympathy and aid from the world — the United States is not perceived as being poor and in need of assistance. Could this be the source of anguish and chagrin?

  2. FWIW, “appropriate sympathetic noises.” The pictures I’ve seen are beyond belief. Before I went to Mozambique I read a lot about the effects of a two-decade civil war on the country’s infrastructure. When I arrived, I found it had left behind, 13 years after a peace agreement, a sort of national garden in which, metephorically speaking, everything refused to grow. The disaster is, initially, a jolt of pain. The rebuilding, however and whenever it happens, will be the ache of a lingering, dehabilitating illness. So I think your reaction is quite justified. It’s not whether the US has the resources but the nature of what the US is now supposed to handle.

  3. I was actually talking to my boyfriend about my take on this today–I’m having sort of the opposite response, being that since I’m a mostly-broke grad student miles and miles away, being bombarded with the media coverage makes me really frustrated. What is it trying to do to me? I don’t think I can totally fathom the level of disaster. My hometown flooded twice when I was living there, and they were pretty bad floods. Nothing like this (I don’t want to get into that kind of comparison either), but bad enough that our close family friends lost the same house twice, and a friend of mine found a dead body in his backyard after the water level dropped. And even THEN I had a hard time taking in all the disaster. But at that time, I had the kind of proximity (if not other resources) to help people. Right now, I don’t know what I can do. I’ve THOUGHT about it some, too. I can make a small donation that will be a “nice thought,” but less than a drop in the bucket. I can’t donate blood, because I don’t weigh enough. Rochester doesn’t seem like a likely spot for refugees, so I can’t take anyone in and feed them or anything. I’ve read some news stories, listened to NPR, seen pictures and TV footage, and I’m at the point where I want to know what the media WANTS from me! If there’s a way to help short of ditching my students and professors and bills and heading down there, I’d love to hear what it is. Seeing more footage and all reminds me what a large-scale disaster this is, yes, but it’s all going on on the other side of the glass. I’m sort of a paralyzed observer. Okay, I’m looking, it’s definitely got my attention, but what is that doing for anybody? A friend told me it seemed so incongruent with the kind of technology we spend so much of our time pampered by. I pray (for lack of a better?), and I try to stay abrest of new information, and I am sure if I had close personal ties to NO I would have a much higher level of panic, but what panic I DO have is the frustrating, helpless, confused kind. Maybe an initiative could be started for Claremont to take on some of the displaced college students? Maybe we could here at UR? I don’t know, I know that demographic will probably mostly be okay, though. I’m trying hard to think of constructive things, but around here, it’s hard NOT to let life go on as usual, since we’re practically in Canada. (Sorry this is a long reply…I was just thinking about this off and on all day. I can’t speak for everyone, but it’s not that I don’t CARE, it’s not that I don’t think this is an ENORMOUS disaster, it’s just that I really don’t know what I can do about that.)

  4. Well since I also lived there (albeit not as long) and still have friends there, I’ve been watching and worrying as obsessively as you.

    I found Baton Rouge’s to be surprisingly informative– especially the video clips.

    As for the rest of the country’s relatively mild reaction thus far, I guess I can only attribute it to the relative insularity of Lousiana/Mississippi, and Alabama. Everyone has friends in New York or California or even Texas or at least they know people who are from there.. but Louisiana.. not so much. People who are born there tend to stay there… and those three states don’t see a lot of permanent inbound domestic immigration either.

    People relate to what/who they know– which is why you and I are reacting as strongly as we are about this… but maybe not an earthquake that kills more people in China for instance.


  5. I realized over a martini this evening (the beverage not incidental to the realization) that I’d entirely missed the tone that I was hoping for in this post. I was really, honestly, aiming for something that said “how can there exist simultaneously in one world the reality that I’m walking around in, in which the world is falling apart, and the reality that other people are walking around in, in which something really bad has happened, but the world isn’t coming to an end?” If there seem to be fingers pointed here, a la “you people aren’t taking this seriously enough,” I do apologize, post-martini. Call it the pervasiveness of my Chicken Little mentality. But I’ll say again that it seems from where I sit (and the “from where I sit” may well be the most important phrase in the aforegoing) that the sky is indeed falling, and that it’s just hitting some of us sooner than others.

  6. Incline, I get your frustration too — even though mine, as I’ve previously expressed, runs the opposite way. The problem with the media converage of this event is that it’s mostly centered around breaking news updates that break our hearts — but the paradox of CNN Style “24 Hour News” is the idea of its utility. It’s there “when you need it.” The truth is that I don’t need all these updates — the constant check-ins to weblogs and online newspapers. I’m not going to hear anything new that will change the already catastrophic big picture. I could wait for the morning. But I’m emotionally caught up, so I indulge in a way I do not over many other things.

    I guess what I’m trying to get at is that I see this “other side of the glass” thing as a function of our entire, mediated relationship to what we might call “reality” these days, especially when reality is a national election, a military conflict, or something else that is at once terribly important and very hard to access in any way other than through these channels. Our only choice to “participate” is as this mediated observer, and indeed we feel we are in some way performing a civic obligation by tuning in.

    I would watch Bush’s news conferences for this reason — feeling that it was my “duty” to do so. Yet I also knew that my response was in some way politically meaningless, as I was demographically part of an already-sidelined group: well-educated New Yorker? Already accounted for, thank you. Or, rather, to make my response meaningful, I would need to do things involving much more labor than watching a news conference.

    I think there’s nothing that the media wants you to “do.” They just want you to keep watching/listening/reading. That’s how their business runs. But in order to do that, they have to give us at least some info- with the -tainment, which means that it’s not entirely a losing proposition (yet) to tune in sometimes — at least until it gives you that “paralyzed observer” feeling, and then I guess you have to turn away. Happens to me all the time.

    Finally, just to clarify my own response as mentioned by KF above. I don’t think the media is underplaying this at all. What I’m a bit shocked by is the way that people around me — who felt the support of the world surrounding them during the days and weeks after Sept. 11 2001 — aren’t talking about this any differently than, say, pictures/video of a once-in-50-year Spring Flood or nasty hurricane. Those are horrible, and communities are devastated in the same manner, and people die and lose loved ones. And they happen, and those of us who don’t live nearby move on.

    But this is something else entirely. This is a once-a-couple-of-centuries event. This is one of the great American cities (and there are not many! this country is too young) that is literally drowning right now, and two states which have been dealt enormous blows on the human and economic levels which will indeed require decades in the recovery. I think about the Dust Bowl. And that makes this something I think we should be talking about — because it’s going to take a concerted national effort to get this region back on its feet.

    To say nothing of mourning the many dead.

  7. I’ve been musing about the sluggish international response. I can’t help but wonder if it has anything to do with the fact that it’s an *American* city that’s been devastated. We don’t seem to garner much sympathy from the rest of the world these days. I fear there’s a degree of schadenfreude out there, and it’s not very becoming.

  8. Reading the comments posted after mine — what KF said. I too retract any and all fingers pointed, however inadverdently.

    It’s a bit late in the evening for a martini, but maybe a bit of Calvados before bed is in order.

    (Oh and hooray on your parents being able to make their visit, KF — have fun.)

  9. What do you want the international response to be, though? It was on the front page of some of our newspapers yesterday, but yes, so were the near 1000 dead in Iraq and heck, the famines in Africa, and the aftermath of last week’s floods in large areas of Europe, which only killed a few dozen people and made a few thousand homeless so it’s obviously not as bad.

    The UN says they’ll help if the US wants help, but USA hasn’t asked for help. The reports about US worries about fuel prices increasing are infuriating here, since the worry is that they’ll increase to $4 a gallon while the European average price has been close to $6 a gallon for months and everyone knows the US is responsible for something like 25% of world pollution while only having 1% of the population. Yes, I suppose that does sound like schadenfreud. I’m sorry.

    People didn’t realise how bad the tsunami was either for several days. Here in Norway the response to the tsunami was huge, because so many Norwegians were there and missing. There haven’t been reports of missing Norwegians in New Orleans.

    It’s harsh, I know, when you’re in it, but I guess to most Europeans this is shocking and yet not much different from watching footage of famines and refugee camps in Africa. It’s a long way away and we’re used to having to shut out empathy when watching these things.

    And I’ve watched the news and felt horrible, too. It’s hard to fathom a whole city destroyed and all its people homeless.

    I’m so glad that your parents are safe, Katherine.

  10. Update: the Canadian Red Cross at the request of the American Red Cross is sending a diaster response team. As well the Canadian Red Cross has announced that it has receieved hundreds of calls and is accepting funds earmarked for relief assistance in the wake of Hurricane Katerina. As well, the Red Cross is taking the opportunity to do public education on emergency preparedness. And yes, the airwaves have devoted some time to interviews with persons with expertise in risk management and engineering. As Jill has mentioned, this is just one story among others. The discourse here is likely to centre on the relationship between a sound civil society and resilence in the face of natural disaster, particularly since the U.S. media feeds are highlighting the looting and the efforts to curtail it. The question on lots of people’s minds — why such looting? The fishbowl effect that the media creates is in some places refracted by a fundamental question of value: property or persons, where to focus efforts.

  11. Well, of all the posts to get linked to.

    With the caveat that you’ve already said that you’re not pointing fingers, I’m still sorry if I seemed insensitive (I did my best to ward that off, but it was probably not possible)–my point was certainly not that this isn’t a tragedy, because it is, and I’m following developing events with increasing sadness and concern. But absurdity in media remains, and that was really my main subject there. I sort of regret comparing the casualty numbers, since it’s ended up as the focus of a lot of criticism of me as a big jerk/cold-hearted robot/insensitive prick, but I wrote what I wrote and I’m not going to pretend I didn’t.

    At any rate, things there seem to be getting worse and worse and if I knew yesterday what I know today I would have been a lot more hesitant to make light of it.

  12. The news coverage has been awful. As a native of the area, you’re privvy to first hand accounts and are able to contextualize the situation as it really is.

    Looking on tv, houses are flooded, people are on the streets. A few people loot. It looks like a bad riot or something — nothing to worry about. Let’s also remember that American’s haven’t fully cast off their adherance to race and class bias — and the bulk of people left in the city (and in the pictuers) are the poorest of the black population, while the white people on tv all have boats and are loving god and helping one another.

    The bulk of the country has no idea about the true extent of damage, or how mob violence and looting has turned deadly and insane.

  13. I think the reason it’s not getting more international coverage is that natural disasters are not atypical. There are floods in Bangladesh and Western India, among other places. The tsunami on the other hand was atypical because of its geographic scope and the number of people killed.

  14. KF, just saw footage of General Honore roll into the city with soldiers, food, and relief supplies. In contrast to the other federal buffoons out there, this guy appears to know how to move people and supplies far more effectively than anyone else thus far. Maybe this is a turning point.

    I spent several summers in New Orleans when I was an undergraduate. I remember reading Hemingway’s _A Moveable Feast_ and drinking peach tea on Julia St; being awed by the mausoleums; endlessly fascinated with the street bands, magicians, and fortune tellers; and starstruck by Mickey Rourke, who was filming Johnny Handsome in the French Quarter while I was there (“you’re shaking like a leaf,” he said when I finally mustered the courage to ask for an autograph). I can understand why you love the city so; and I’m so glad to hear that your family is okay.

  15. I’ve been thinking about you and my other New orleans friends often this week, KF, and many of your comments are just starting to settle in. But one of the things that is troubling me is the degree to which this has been portrayed as a “natural disaster,” when it is actually more than that.

    Your “What Went Wrong” post is a starting point in outlining the ways in which this tragedy is at least partially human-made, at least to the extent that government policies devalued the lives of hundereds of thousands of people by not maintaining the levees. I’m also disturbed by the degree to which people seem to be continuing their lives without any kind of mourning or grief. To take one trivial comparison, the NFL, college football, and major league baseball completely shut down for a week or two (I can’t remember exactly) after 9/11. THe opposite seems to be happening here, as if there is a will-not-to-grieve.

  16. I have no insights, just the same experience. I actually lose sleep thinking about not only the horror of this disaster, (I’m thinking mostly about the government’s abject failure to do anything; hurricanes are going to happen) but the horrible lessons that we have learned for future disasters: don’t do what you’re told, don’t trust the government agencies, don’t count on anybody showing up to help you in any way. But when I even mention it in the No-Worries-State, most people say something like, “Oh yeah, how is that going? I heard some people had to evacuate.” Further attempts to convey to such people that this is a real disaster happening right now in real life just cause them to get that concerned look that means they’re wondering whether I’m entirely stable. (yeah, I got used to that look after the 2000 presidential election..)

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